It's been a bad week for felines on home video — first up, we reviewed the 20th anniversary edition of Sleepwalkers  in which the cop's cat, Clovis, has to go tooth to claw with an evil shape-shifter and barely survives; then there's the upcoming Blu-ray release of Re-Animator  in which Dr. Herbert West kills and then resurrects his roommate's black mog, Rufus, with disastrous results — but perhaps faring and aging the best are two timeless classics, Cat People and Curse of the Cat People.
Both films are produced by Val Lewton. Though his career was cut short by a combination of Hollywood politics and ill health, Lewton’s distinctive body of work builds a strong case for the producer as auteur. The RKO B-movies produced by him during the 1940s conjure up a mood of intangible dread and wonder, especially these companion pieces, presented back-to-back on one disc.
1942's Cat People has since become a classic and I've seen it numerous times… but, I never tire of it. It's an absolutely gorgeous and masterful combination of mood, suspense, horror, romance, dark fantasy and melodrama.
Here we meet Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), an exquisite and mysterious Serbian-born fashion artist residing in New York City. After he gives her a Siamese kitten as a present, Irena falls in love with and marries Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). The conflicted cat-woman is afraid that arousing her marital passions will wake the panther within her, so her husband sends her to a very tasty psychiatrist (played with panache by Tom Conway), but alas, there is no nurture which can overcome her predatory nature.
This evocative black-and-white film preys purely on the imagination, shunning lurid transformation scenes. What's more, it was one of the first to feature the 'Lewton bus' — a scene in which a bus obscures the viewer from seeing certain scary goings-on. That information, and more, is revealed on the DVD commentary by cinefile Greg Mank (which is intercut with a few reminiscing quotes from the late Simon).
So much has been written on Cat People, I choose to focus on its lesser-known sequel, Curse of the Cat People, which was released a couple of years later. Imbued with even more mood and languid, dreamy pacing than its companion, Curse of the Cat People takes place about seven years after Irena's departure.
Focus is on the daughter of re-married Oliver Reed, and Alice (Kent Smith and Jane Randolph). Irena's supernatural spirit lives on, and she wants nothing more than to seduce young Amy (Ann Carter), the child she never got to have. Amy is a pensive, fanciful girl, bright and imaginative, yet naïve. After she encounters an old woman who lives in the neighborhood haunted mansion ("The Witch's House" the local kiddies call it) and is given a perhaps magical friendship ring, the little girl begins to receive visits from an imaginary companion: Irina.
Mysteries and meanings begin to curl around each other like creeping vines — the elderly dame (played by Julia Dean) disowned her own daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, who was the "sister" cat-woman in the restaurant scene in the first Cat People film), whom she claims died in an accident at the age of six: the same age Amy is. What's more, Amy means "friend" in French, and while Irina is a good one, jealous Barbara is the furthest from such and actually wants to strangle the child.
While some have cited the story as slow, it's a movie I personally adore — and would probably love even more, had I seen it as a little girl; it's a truly beautiful and respectful kids' drama with delicacy and depth in equal measure — for many reasons. The acting is absolutely tops across the board from old to young, especially given the extended bouts of dialogue; the sensuous, silky black and white cinematography is sumptuous indeed, and DP Nicholas Musuraca really knew how to compose for maximum artistic impact; and direction is deft, even as split between two men with very different stylistic sensibilities.
The first director of the film was workhorse Gunther Von Fritsch (who fell behind schedule and went over budget), and then artistic Robert Wise (who was RKO editor on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) was brought on the try his hand. This led to a big career in directing for Wise. The next year Lewton had Wise helm The Body Snatcher. He then went on to a successful career that would include The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Haunting, West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, and The Andromeda Strain.
Cat People and Curse of the Cat People are perfect to watch one right after the other on a rainy afternoon, or better-yet, a sleepless night.
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Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson